TEDxConnect

How I created a digital platform to help large events bring diverse people together and engage them in ideas, communities and spaces.

CONTEXT

TED has created a program called TEDx where live speakers and performers are combined to spark deep connection and discussion. This event brings together the audience, speakers and volunteers in an intimate setting to learn and grow from each other’s experiences. The goal is to bring diverse people together and engage them in new ideas, communities and spaces (TED).

As a speaker in the 2019 event, TEDxEmilyCarrU Greater Than You, and as the 2020 TEDxEmilyCarrU New Voices co-organizer, I work with Communications, Curation, Design, Finance teams, and the event’s speakers, to create an exciting event for a large audience of approximately 400 attendees. Through this position, I recognize that attendees want to be able to connect to other attendees, speakers and the ideas in a better way. So how can we make that happen?

Speaking at TEDxEmilyCarrU, Greater Than You, 2019

THE OPPORTUNITY SPACE

Because TEDx is a one-day event, it is difficult for organizers, who volunteer for over eight months, to engage with the public throughout the year due to their heavy workload. The organizers also spend a large amount of time on the day of the event making sure everything is running smoothly. On the other hand, the speakers are rehearsing for over three months and may be too nervous on the day of the event to connect with the audience on a personal and more impactful level. Finally, the attendees spend about two full hours listening to diverse and engaging talks but may have a lack of confidence to go up to a speaker or organizer in-person to network with them. Some come alone and don’t know when and how to join a group of people, even during the breaks. Due to these unfortunate “day of” circumstances, I realized that TED and TEDx’s values of “sparking conversation, connection and community” (TED) end up unresolved on a larger scale.

Grab and go culture during breaks

Therefore, this problem creates an opportunity for interaction design to intervene and support a community of ideas to continue spreading. I created TEDxConnect, a digital platform to help bridge the gap between TEDx attendees, speakers and volunteers. TEDxConnect can be used before, during and after the event through several in-product features within four categories: the event guide pages, connection games, discussion board and reflection pages. Each page is designed with the intent to help the user connect easily to other users, share their ideas, understand everything happening at the event and stay mindful through reflections.

HOW DID I GET THERE?

SURVEY DATA COLLECTION AND ORGANIZATION

The first set of data I collected came from the 2019 TEDxEmilyCarrU entrance survey responses (TEDxEmilyCarrU) and 2017, 2018 and 2019 feedback responses (TEDxECUAD, TEDxEmilyCarrU). I used these because they come directly from the words of the attendees. I also believe that a large number of responses can be used to find correlations between the attendees’ interests and what kind of connections they are looking for in a TEDx event.

Entrance survey for TEDxEmilyCarrU 2019

I analyzed the interests of 194 participants by reading the descriptions of their “Hobbies, Interests and Causes,“ “What’s something most people don’t know about you,” and the “Ask me about” section. Through this, as an organizer, I could deduce what kinds of talks we should aim to curate this year for the audience to be interested in, but as a designer, I could also see what stories can bring people together.

Keywords and number of mentions from the entrance survey

Highlighting the keywords in these three sections and breaking them into themes showed me how many people mentioned each theme. The most common themes people want to talk about are art, science and technology, community, and music. I did consider that this could also be because TEDxEmilyCarrU is hosted in an art institute and my results are therefore more skewed towards an artistic audience. However, this still gave me a useful insight into how discussions can be built in a community with such diverse interests. I believe that storytelling about such themes within and outside the day of the event could be a way of achieving TEDx’s goals.

Feedback from 2017, 2018 and 2019

Using this feedback form data, I identified several pain points and potential gains felt by the audience. For example, the feedback ranged from positives such as, “I love hearing new ideas from a variety of people and I think it’s important to expand our minds in this way as a part of our wellness and happiness,” to pain points like, “Not all the people were willing to interact with strangers which made it awkward because at that moment I felt like I needed to be part of the speakers’ network in order to be allowed to connect with them or their circle.” The other pain points included how even though people wanted to learn more about each other, most attendees didn’t feel connected to the speakers because they didn’t have enough information as to why speakers were chosen or what talk topics were going to be presented, they didn’t feel connected to the people around them because they were too intimidated to talk to strangers, or they felt like interaction and socialization was extremely forced into the moment with eyes on them at all times.

INTERVIEWS AND PRODUCT FEATURES GENERATION

To enhance my survey findings, I conducted interviews with those who have attended large conferences similar to TEDx. I used this approach to find answers to more specific questions that I put together myself. I created 13 questions, divided into three categories to interview 11 people. These three sections of questions were framed to find out how people choose to go to events and what attendees want out of them, how people reflect on their experiences at past events, and how people interact with others and themselves before, during and after an event.

The answers to the question “Did you feel comfortable asking questions at the event? If not, why?” came back with barriers such as public speaking, too many professionals in the room, no opportunities for open discussions, or volume issues. This motivated me to create ways for introverts to voice their thoughts and opinions remotely. This way, everyone can engage in their own time and space without worrying about what others may think of it.

I also asked, “How do you interact with the speakers and attendees before, during and after an event? If any, what tools are used?” Before the event, most answers came back as “none.” However, some answered that social media or Slack was a way they communicated with other attendees and speakers. Interactions during the event involved chatting to those sitting next to them, in bathroom lines, or while getting snacks. Only two answers said that they either message over LinkedIn or email people after the event. Clearly, there needs to be more than social media for people to connect to each other deeply before, during and after an event. I don’t want people to feel like they lost an opportunity to connect to someone just because the day of the event is over and they couldn’t get someone’s name or contact information.

Another important question was, “How do you reflect on what you have learnt before, during and after an event? If any, what tools are used?” To this, people responded with notetaking, photos and videos on their phone, or just reflecting within themselves. This validated that most people use their phones, even during the event. Is there a way I could create something on mobile for these connections to work?

MAPPING OUT THE DATA

Discovering this led me to map out a timeline on how our event is organized and when and how exactly attendees feel connected to the event.

Timeline of TEDxEmilyCarrU

As you can see, although the event team and speakers are working hard, the audience only has social media or past talks to look through, with no further discussion or engagement on their part other than one feedback survey a day after the event takes place. The surveys, interviews and the timeline made the case that my proposed design opportunity exists and validated that people want a solution here. I realized that my design needs to focus on finding a way to create an incentive for those who might be scared or nervous to contribute by asking questions and being engaged with the community.

Therefore, I used another quick analysis tool to build out ideas for features I could add to one digital space for everyone to use. I used the surveys, feedback forms and interview responses to create solutions to each pain point mentioned.

Using research to build features

Doing this process with all the data I had collected, I wanted to create:

1. The Sign-in Process: Showing how an attendee can sign on to create a profile by entering their information and selecting their privacy settings. They can also choose their interests, which will then get them connected to speakers or attendees with similar interests. If no one has a similar interest, they will directly reach the dashboard.

2. The Dashboard: Shows the four main categories: The event guide, connection games, discussion board and personal space. The dashboard also shows you past talks and tells you a little about TEDx.

3. The Event Guide Space: This includes the event information, speaker information, event schedule and map and other TEDx events around you.

4. The Connection Game Space: Involves the questionnaire ice-breaking game for when you are away from the event, and a scavenger hunt themed ice-breaking game for during the event. There is also a leaderboard to see who is highly active during the event.

5. Discussion Board: Where everyone can chat in the same thread using text, emoji, gifs, stickers and reactions.

6. The Personal Space: Contains a goal-setting check-in, idea log for notetaking, private messaging, your appointments, gathering creator and feedback form.

MAKING AND TESTING PROTOTYPES

CREATING AND TESTING CLICKABLE PHONE SCREENS

I used Adobe XD to prototype wireframes and mockups of my platform’s screens. The style guide for these screens mostly matches the TED and TEDx branding by using the same shade of red and black and using Helvetica Neue as the typeface. However, I did add one serif typeface, Kepler STD, to make the project feel more personal and add my style to my project.

Wireframes of TEDxConnect
Sign In process mockups
Dashboard and main categories mockups
Connections icebreaker game mockups
Profile, private messaging and appointments mockups

The testing of these screens helped me consider how the flow of the app works without looking too much like a dating platform, the profile creation and how to manage privacy settings, and the general UI and if it matches TEDx branding. Though all the pages aren’t complete yet, testers found the pages to be meaningful and useful in finding people similar to them. They did, however, find the illustrations and colour palette to be more like that of a dating app since it’s all about connections. Several users asked how they can control who messages them and how to limit the information others can see about them. This is why the second step in the sign-in process directly asks you about your privacy settings. I’ve also made sure that if a stranger messages you, they can only send another message if you reply back to them.

CREATING AND TESTING AN ICE BREAKER

Now that I understood my problem space and had a clear idea of what to build, I used Webflow to create a sample ice-breaking connection game from the connections game page that I could test. The game involved ice-breaking questions where the device provides you with conceptual questions about yourself. These ice-breaking questions are not privacy-invasive as they are general enough for everyone to answer without giving away directly identifiable personal information. The tester can answer the questions and hit submit, to then view everyone else’s answers. This is a simple way of incorporating individuals' voices into a community and helps you reach out to them directly if you find their answers interesting.

But then I asked myself, what is the content of the questions and how can they form strong connections? I began reading some of the questions within the study, The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness, by psychologist Arthur Aron and more (Aron, et al. 363–377), which directly inspired works such as, To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This by Mandy Len Catron (Catron) and the New York Times article, The 36 Questions That Lead to Love (Jones). These 36 questions have become increasingly popular amongst those who wish to build deep connections with strangers or acquaintances but don’t know how to begin. From these articles, I realized it is about sharing the within, being proud of your opinions and willing to be open-minded when it comes to others. By leaving yourself slightly exposed while knowing others will answer too, you feel more comfortable being your authentic self by describing something you deeply care about.

Before beginning the Webflow prototype, I went around my class with a set of ten questions along with the following: Do you consider that these ice-breaking questions can help build connections? Which answer would you want to find out about a stranger? And could you suggest another question?

After choosing three of the top choices, I then chose to prototype this questionnaire on Webflow to see how people respond to the questions. Because this was my first time using Webflow, I focused more on the interactions and if my test questions worked over the design of the page.

Webflow Connections Game Question Prototype

Feedback on this questionnaire included changing the wording of questions to be simplified, showing the questions above the answers, and having a Message button beside the person’s name to be able to directly contact them. However, all the questions were well appreciated and through this testing, I decided on:

1. “What is your superpower?”

I chose this question because testers felt good about themselves and really thought about why people should want to connect to them.

2. “What is something that concerns you in the world?”

Testers felt connected to those with the same passion as them. Fears bring people closer and make them want to find solutions together.

3. “If you could become an expert in something, what would it be?”

Testers felt that they could easily talk about something that hasn’t happened yet but is still true to them, similar to a new year’s resolution. They also kept checking if others had responded similarly to be able to connect to them and “have a jam session together.”

HOW DOES THIS SOLVE THE ISSUE?

Going back to the issue, we noticed that the day of the event had several barriers for organizers, speakers and attendees to connect. So how does TEDxConnect and its features help people connect all year round?

TEDxConnect can be used before the event for its online ice-breaking game, event guides, discussion board and appointment scheduler features to reduce the anxiety of not knowing who’s around in an event and make you comfortable meeting those who have the same interests as you. Q&A features, the scavenger hunt game, notebooks and event guides can be used during the event to facilitate deeper conversations amongst everyone at the event and make sure all attendees are familiar with what is happening where and when. Finally, the reflection space’s feedback form and gathering scheduler can be used after the event to continue reflection, idea generation and help people self-organizing events within the community to share more experiences with each other.

MOVING ON

Moving on in this project, I would love to add more interactions to these existing features. Now that I have tackled awkwardness in person, how do I tackles awkwardness online? For example, what if someone doesn’t know how to start a chat conversation? Can I create a randomized way for suggested phrases to introduce yourself or create a good opening sentence? I also want to think more about the communal spaces such as the discussions or the game board.

Another important part I want to focus on is safety and privacy. Though I have started to work on this a little in the sign-up process and messaging pages, I want to think about the specifics of what people can see and what can be done about it. There could be many shady people out there, but perhaps my trust in the TEDx community exceeds what might be the reality. I need to give people control of their data and these are the first steps in doing so.

A fun thing I wish I could work on is how you create your own avatar or illustration on the app. You could choose your own background, clothing, body features or more to mimic your lifestyle. This can be a fun way of getting to know others as well.

I’m very happy with how far this project has come along in the past eight months and I hope to see it grow even more!

Thank you so much for reading! Let me know what you think — jananiramesh.com :)

WORKS CITED

Aron, Arthur, et al. “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness: A Procedure and Some Preliminary Findings.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, vol. 23, no. 4, 1997, pp. 363–377. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0146167297234003

Catron, Mandy Len. “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This.” The New York Times, 9 Jan. 2015. www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/style/modern-love-to-fall-in-love-with-anyone-do-this.html.

Jones, Daniel. “The 36 Questions That Lead to Love.” The New York Times, 9 Jan. 2015. www.nytimes.com/2015/01/11/style/36-questions-that-lead-to-love.html.

TED. TEDx Program. www.ted.com/about/programs-initiatives/tedx-program.

TEDxECUAD. “TEDxECUAD-2017.” Feedback Form. 25 Mar 2017.

TEDxECUAD. “TEDxECUAD-2018.” Feedback Form. 17 Mar 2018.

TEDxEmilyCarrU. “Report-2019–03–15T2359.” Entrance Survey. 16 Mar 2019.

TEDxEmilyCarrU. “TEDxEmilyCarrU-2019.” Feedback Form. 16 Mar 2019.

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